So, six months on from the riots, looting and lawlessness that prompted a heartfelt blog post and a desire amongst a lot of people to ‘do something’, where are we?
I remember writing that that the memory of the events of August 2011 would very quickly fade and the city and its citizens would return to the normality of life with a sort of unspoken acceptance that the divisions exposed by the violence could be ignored once again.
Well, a lot of energy was expended in those first few weeks, and a germ of an idea did start to come together.
A compelling one, and one fullof potential.
But one that needs a new burst of energy and momentum, if we are to prevent my pessimistic prediction coming to pass. I have felt pressure and other commitments increasingly encroaching on the time I can devote to this project, made all the more shameful by the continued energy and passion of my friends, Louise, Karl and Kay.
But back to that germ of an idea.
A theme that struck a chord in those early conversations last August was that of separateness, a division, within the city.
It can be defined in many ways, along lines of class, age or ethnicity, but at the heart of it I believe is the division between those who drive the economic engine of the city and those who actually live in it.
And the division isn’t because they don’t want the same thing – a healthy, safe, prosperous city – but because somewhere along the line these two communities have lost touch and forgotten they are actually the same community.
The jargon calls it a ‘disconnect’ – an absence of real, fundamental relationships that genuinely make lasting differences. Perhaps it’s the lack of a shared agenda.
It rarely descends into antipathy, although August’s events were a symptom of the unthinking incoherent rage that will occasionally bubble to the surface.
When I expressed this last year, many people in business understandably complained that it denigrated their considerable, genuine and heartfelt efforts to engage with the wider community through their corporate social responsibility programmes.
But my point was that despite considerable CSR activity right across the city, the riots demonstrated there was something still fundamentally wrong in Birmingham’s relationship with itself.
Could it be that separate CSR programmes and community efforts by various businesses are essentially being randomly deployed, with the result that the result is actually LESS than the sum of their parts?
While some brokerage services do sterling work matching supply and demand between businesses and community needs, is this done to achieve an objective that the whole city is signed up to? Indeed, when it comes to supply and demand, is it actually the case that it’s businesses demanding to be fed a supply of community projects that suit their requirements, rather than the other way around?
What if there was a way for the city as a whole – businesses and communities – to agree a broad set of objectives, such as ‘we need to help more young people into more training and employment opportunities’? (There are of course other causes, but let’s stick with that one for the moment, as it’s central to August’s troubles.)
What if those objectives were broken down into digestible, achievable needs and wants, as defined by the young people themselves and those who work with them? Something like ‘We need 20 mentors from business for the young people on our leadership programme’, or ‘We need some help with our accounts for two days a month for our young carers group’. Why not: ‘We have 100 school leavers on our estate – we want them all to get work experience this year’?
Birmingham would soon have a list of 10,000 ‘things’ that if delivered, could actually achieve something that was far bigger than the sum of its parts – because they’re all lined up in the same direction for a change.
What if businesses concentrated their CSR efforts on delivering 10,000 pledges to meet the 10,000 needs? Existing CSR programmes could refine what they do based on the pledges, and new initiatives could be started to focus on particular needs.
What if ordinary citizens got involved as well? By mentoring or volunteering as an individual, an active citizen’s efforts would be every bit as valuable as those of large organisations, but all the more powerful because they’re shooting at the same goal.
What if there was a way of the whole city to see what pledges were being asked for, made and delivered? Wouldn’t that help all of us appreciate that we are after all, part of the same city?
The results could be enormous: Young people in training, in jobs, engaged with the city and contributing to and enjoying its prosperity. Businesses and individuals feeling that their efforts are part of a bigger drive to make the city better, rather than ploughing their own lonely furrows..
So what’s next? We’ve tested the water with friends, contacts, community groups and businesses, and we think it’s worth pursuing.
The Thrive network, for instance, is likely to play a major part, amongst many others, and its CSR-focused conference on April 20 presents us with an opportunity to breathe life into what we’re calling ‘The Birmingham Pledge’, or ’Birmingham’s 10,000 Opportunities’.
At the heart of the initiative, we envisage a simple web presence into which community groups pour their wants and needs, while those who can help visit to find pledges they can make. The site and social media will ensure the wants and pledges are amplified and recognised through all kinds of channels, and, crucially, the whole city can see at a glance how well the pledges are keeping pace with the needs.
We’re getting some very welcome help on the web front, but will no doubt need more as the project grows.
The team has come a long way since August with the help of some fantastic people, but they’re likely to need a lot more to reach that April 20 deadline. Wish them luck!